Jean-Louis Roba, The Luftwaffe in Africa 1941-1943 (Casemate, 2019)
You would think that clear desert skies were ideal for aerial combat. For the most part they were, but the majority of technical problems for the Luftwaffe tasked with supporting Rommel’s Afrika Korps came on the ground, while up in the air, the dark clouds gathering were the increasing numbers of enemy aircraft. In The Luftwaffe in Africa 1941-1943, Jean-Louis Roba explains how the Germans tried to cope with it all.
Roba opens with a handy timeline, integrating Luftwaffe operations into the broader Desert War. That war began with the failed Italian offensive in Egypt. The British counter-offensive brought the Luftwaffe into the theatre, operating mainly from Sicily. When Erwin Rommel arrived in Africa the following month, the Luftwaffe came with him. They soon discovered a lack of ground support facilities and the dangers to engines posed by sand. What follows is a catalogue of operations and sorties flown by the Luftwaffe in support of the Afrika Korps and the important transport service across the Mediterranean. The Commonwealth air forces were initially weak and overstretched – most German losses came from Anti-Aircraft fire. The loss of Crete in May 1941 meant that the Germans could use the island as a base, but also concentrated Allied airpower into North Africa. The escalation of forces increased in Africa, and new planes fitted with sand filters also entered the fray, though so too did the Allied SAS and LRDG to conduct hit-and-run missions against Axis airfields.
That the tide was turning against the Luftwaffe can be seen in the numbers of serviceable aircraft available on the eve of Operation Crusader in November 1941 – the Allies outnumbered the Axis 2:1. The Luftwaffe’s depletion through transfer to other fronts and being hit hard by the Allies exacerbated the situation, though the supply lines failure caused by Allied control of Malta seems to have hit the hardest. All of that, as Roba makes clear, continued to swing towards the Allies. In January 1942, Rommel took the offensive, but the Luftwaffe struggled to cover the variety of missions it had to conduct. Roba notes that they also could not prevent Allied bombers while the Luftwaffe lost many in return. It did not help when the Allies deployed Spitfires.
Roba identifies 30 September 1942 as a turning point for the Luftwaffe in Africa when ace Hptm. “Jochen” Marseille, the Star of Africa, was killed. From then it was all downhill for the Germans. By 23 October and the El Alamein offensive, the Allies outnumbered the Germans 3:1 in the air; the Luftwaffe had also lost many of its aces and it was “virtually bled white”. The arrival of the Americans added to the imbalance, but still the Luftwaffe fought on, though more in desperation than confidence. New German aircraft such as the FW190 made little difference against the increasing numerical imbalance. By May 1943, those who could get out of Africa did so; those who remained had to surrender. Roba concludes that Rommel’s decision to attack Egypt cost Germany valuable Luftwaffe resources in what was a doomed effort.
This volume in Casemate’s Men, Battles, Weapons series is packed with just enough information to satisfy the drive-by reader but leave the curious wanting more. I think that is ideal for a series like this. The text is nothing to write home about, but it is informative, and Roba is supported by many photographs, maps, tables, and In Profile graphic artworks of relevant warplanes. This is a different perspective on the Desert War from the usual emphasis on ground operations and a welcome one.